I think that a lot of people in the white collar world fail to understand or fully appreciate what it really takes to work in the blue collar trades for a living. Conversely, blue collar workers tend to not understand the pressures of white collar work. However, white collar work is well written about and blue collar work is typically glossed over. Most know construction work is physically hard and a dirty job, but there is so much more to the story. Most can imagine mixing cement, sand and water; we have all done it at some point. But few know the real job of what we call a professional hod-carrier. Even fewer know the picture on production plaster pump. After all, how hard could that really be?

When I was in school, I played football and our bull fullback who set weight-lifting records and ran over linebackers needed a summer job. I got him one with my father’s plastering firm. He was to help mix on a production plaster pump. The 20 year-old made it to lunch and then quit. This job was hard, dirty and required a lot of mental focus. This is hard when you’re doused in sweat and your muscles are begging you to stop. I then told him, the hod-carrier you left finished the day alone and we did not slow down. He talked about that day for several years as his day of hell on earth.

A Day in the Job

The day starts by reviewing the machine for any defects and the first batch must lubricate the hose properly. Failing at this can get you fired before you even start. This is more common than one would think as a dry hose absorbs water and the resulting blockage or “pack” stops production and is potentially dangerous. Once underway, the hod-carrier is on top of the big sand pile and shoveling downhill is pretty easy. Batches are blended for a minute or two and then dumped into the large hopper. The sand pile lowers about the time you start aching a bit. However, the pump does not tire and just keeps going and going. A rookie will realize they have dug a hole in the sand pile that looks like a volcano. A seasoned hod-carrier will work the side of the pile so the pump can be pushed back at break and lunch. This sounds easy, but requires some finesse to work the pile properly. In the afternoon it is easy to get distracted when the sun is beating down and every muscle is screaming for you to quit. I have to admit, hell week in organized football and this were very similar. I have seen guys pass out from hard physical work when conditions are extreme. I look back and almost laugh about it, but it was not really funny. 

Working on the plaster pump was to me like being on a football team. If one person misses an assignment, everything fails. On the plaster pump crew, you are dirty and dog tired but quitting will stop the crew’s production or even worse, will proclaim to others you just couldn’t hack it. Since it was family or friends that probably brought you in, that is motivation to keep going and pushing yourself. Then you have the people you don’t like, that are itching to laugh at you. Your breaking point will be tested. It is harder than most white collar workers can comprehend to fight physical pain while keeping the focus of your task in front of you. Each has their motivation, but keeping the sand pile working in the right direction, getting the mix ratios right, not adding too much or too little water must be done. Done every two minutes, make a mistake and you will hear about it.

 It Gets Easier

Do not think the plasterers have it much easier, they do not. They are on that team, too. They fight the pain and must also focus on the job at hand, just as much as the mixer man behind that monster never stops pumping. As muscles acclimate and you learn the task, the work seems easier. Not because the task is easier, but because you are getting in shape and able to focus better. Some call it apprenticeship.

I have wondered if the hit television show “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe, ever thought of this type of work. I appreciate his effort to show dirty work, but it seems to focus on the bizarre or gross. I also feel he avoided the more skilled crafts that are dirty and hard. I wonder if he would make it a day on a plaster crew pumping up to 65 tons of plaster in the middle of the summer. These types of jobs are hard. They can beat your body and mind, and will test your internal fortitude. The fact that most will not or cannot write about it, should not diminish its value to America.